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Guardians Of The Galaxy: So serene on the screen

August 8, 2014


I saw Guardians Of The Galaxy this week. That was an excellent decision. I saw it late, in a huge, nearly empty theatre, and once it started the film had a momentum that didn’t slip. I sat thinking about how much I was enjoying Chris Pratt, like I always do but more because someone had the sense and money to put him at the front of a film this big, and about how the film caught something of the 1980s past the obvious references, something in spirit and style. It was, I thought, the kind of sharp, joyous action sci-fi I haven’t seen since, oh, about 2005.

Yes, this is about Serenity.

I feel like Serenity is a story that’s tried to tell itself several times. As Dune and Blade Runner fans know, all the best sci-fi worlds exist in fragmented, tantalising pieces, and Joss Whedon’s wistfully remembered space western is no different. It existed in 2002 as the Fox television show Firefly until, after 11 of its 14 episodes aired, it didn’t any more. Then it existed as the Universal movie in 2005, which wasn’t seen by enough people to become the Universal franchise.

And perhaps it existed even before that, as early as 1997. Re-watch Alien: Resurrection, the Alien sequel written by Whedon, and the scavenger crew propping up the stretched Ripley plot are a close, dark parallel of their future incarnations aboard Serenity. Someone even mentioned the similarity to Whedon.

…it just stopped me in my tracks. I was like “Yes, my pony did its trick again!” I really never thought of it until somebody pointed it out to me. But the irony goes further than I could have imagined because we shot it on the same stages at Fox as they shot Alien: Resurrection. In fact, Serenity was built over the pit they dug for Alien: Resurrection, for the underwater sequence.

I love this quote, because it strikes at how ideas work, circling and charming before manifesting in ways sometimes the thinker doesn’t see, and because it acknowledges how ideas also have to be reconciled to a system of production and an industry, and how the two often invisibly together to make things.

This relationship lurks behind the other thought I had in my empty theatre, as I watched Peter Quill imperfectly, unconventionally stride through a cosmopolitan cosmos wearing a long brown coat and backed by a mismatched set of mercenaries: just as Serenity existed in Alien: Resurrection it exists now, too, in Guardians of The Galaxy. Except because I’m still furious about Firefly being cancelled like everyone else who’s ever been on the internet, what I actually thought was: why does this get to exist, and not just to exist but to thrive and explode, when Serenity failed?

I don’t think Guardians is a hit because of the Marvel tag, or the Disney marketing dollars. I’m also not a moron and I don’t think these things hurt, but Guardians doesn’t star long-established heroes and this isn’t a typical Marvel world, it’s one that feels like original sci-fi. It feels instead as though the cultural momentum of comic book storytelling has shifted the orientation of mainstream audiences to the point where Guardians can be – and Serenity could have been – embraced.

This shift was gradual. When I got to university 15 years ago even I, who grew up playing video games, reading shelves of Tolkien derivatives and loving cinema, felt that comics were still a nerd-step too far. And then ten years ago, during the period when Firefly failed and Serenity missed its audience, the studios were releasing Daredevil, Catwoman, The Fantastic Four – awkward missteps of a system that saw the potential in comics, saw the vast source material that lay beyond Spider-Man and the X-Men, but just didn’t get it.

So they hired people who did. One of the striking things about Marvel’s recent run of success is who is in charge of their biggest movies. Whedon himself, his pony still doing tricks, wrote and directed The Avengers. Shane Black brought a similar levity and humour to Iron Man 3. And James Gunn, who gave Nathan Fillion so many of his post-Serenity roles, came in to make Guardians Of The Galaxy. The work of these people has grounded the potentially fly-away Marvel universe, and their films adhere to the essential rules Whedon laid out for Firefly: “…don’t be arch, don’t be sweeping. Be found, be rough and tumble, and docu and you-are-there.”

So depending on how you look at it the answer to my question – why Guardians gets to exist when Serenity failed – is either the triumph of the nerds, or the vast appropriation of niche culture by the maw of Hollywood. And of course it’s both, it’s ideas and industry, and how the two often work invisibly together. And that’s why the success of Guardians, which is the same seed of an idea as Serenity even though it’s an excellent thing all of its own in a hundred other ways, leaves me both thrilled and a little thoughtful, in that way tantalisingly fragmented universes make us think. They really are the best ones.

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